Cherry Creek High School graduating senior and Greenwood Village resident Nicole Yee Chen is one of three United States Presidential Scholars chosen from Colorado this year. The others are Whitney Blue from Boulder’s Fairview High School and Kayson Marler from Loveland High School. At least two students, one male and one female, are given this honor each year from every state, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Americans abroad. The states with the largest number of presidential scholars in 2021 are California with nine, Florida with eight, and Massachusetts with seven.
We met with Nicole on a warm Wednesday afternoon after she’d finished taking her last Advanced Placement test. Although she has excelled in studies from computer science (she took AP Computer Science in the ninth grade) to art (see her diptych painting of fencing above…) and debate (she was the captain of the Lincoln Douglas debate team and a national qualifier this year), Nicole’s favorite subject is history. She told us, “We can learn so much from the past that explains the present. Finding those connections is intriguing to me.” She also compared the struggles of a character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with some of the challenges women face today.
Nicole told The Villager that she got the invitation to apply to be a presidential scholar just after she heard from Harvard University that she had been accepted to attend there. She said she was focused on her grandfather then, who was very sick with COVID-19, and eventually passed from complications of the virus at the age of 80. Nicole, whose parents emigrated from China 30 years ago, told us, “My grandpa was elated that I got into Harvard. He said the next step is to meet the U.S. president.” She said that as he was failing and doctors told her family that “it was almost impossible to save him,” her parents began to think it might be better to let him go. “It became increasingly apparent that (her family in China) had conflicting cultural ideals…and ethical guidelines,” she told us, continuing, “My Chinese relatives were adamant about keeping him on life support. It was really interesting, the different moral and ethical interpretations, based on cultural background.”
We asked Nicole why she thought she was picked for this honor. She pointed to her essays, one of which was about moral ambiguity, in which she talked about where she fits in the world. She described science experiments in which she participated during an internship in a laboratory at CU’s Anschutz School of Medicine. Those included using mice in experiments that they would not survive. She noticed that, even though, “when I was young, I was taught never to kill any animals because that was ethically wrong,” she felt clear that these experiments were for the greater good of humanity and they did not bother her. As captain of the Lincoln Douglas debate team at school, Nicole explained, “we look at the moral implications of our actions…but after my experience working in the lab, I realized that the world is ethically ambiguous.”
Nicole told us that she was attracted to Harvard because of “its strong emphasis on a liberal arts education.” She doesn’t know her major yet. “I have always been a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) student, but I feel like my passion lies in the humanities.” She plans to explore and see where that leads her.
Seeing that she was Colorado state champion in senior women’s foil for 2016 through 2019, we wanted to know how Nicole got into fencing. She said she was intrigued when she saw fencing in the Olympics as a sixth grader. She said she fences, “by instinct and intuition.” Participating in that sport “has allowed me to let go and be willing to trust in things I cannot control, letting my sixth sense guide me, which applies to the real world. It also requires a degree of adaptability, which also helps me in real life.”
We wanted to know what motivated Nicole to achieve at such a high level. Not her parents, she assured us, laughing. “My mom is not very strict. She didn’t even know what Power School was until my sophomore year,” she said. (Power School is an online system in which parents can see their children’s attendance and their grades on every assignment in real time). “I’ve always had a goal and I’ve loved the journey to attain that goal.” Nicole talked about a personality test she took that showed that she was a person who “loved being challenged, going over obstacles, and achievement.” She described herself as “always having been proactive, motivated, and determined,” but noted the importance of “family values,” as well. “My parents have definitely helped me to hone my values, but they are definitely not tiger parents…My parents have never even met my counselor at school.”
Asked what she wanted people to know about her, Nicole told us, “I am a very self-reflective, self-aware person who enjoys challenges.” Any weaknesses? “I tend to overcomplicate things, which causes me to sometimes doubt myself. I also think I’m too direct sometimes.” She added, “Also, I’m not a good driver. I failed my driver’s test three times.”
Established in 1964, the U.S. Presidential Scholars program recognizes and honors distinguished high school seniors from every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Americans Abroad. Of the approximately 3,000,000 students who graduate from American high schools each year, there were 121 culled from a starting group of around 3,000 nationally who got perfect scores on the SAT or the English and math sections of the ACT. Another 20 are chosen for their artistic ability and an additional 20 come from career and technical education. Regardless of which of the three areas candidates come from, those who are invited to apply for this honor are evaluated based on academic achievement, personal characteristics, leadership, and service activities. Those chosen usually attend a National Recognition Program in Washington, D.C. in June, where they get to meet the President of the United States. This year, because of the pandemic, that event will occur virtually.
The Villager plans to keep up with Nicole Yee Chen as she goes on to achieve whatever is next for her.